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Man in the Middle
By Brian Haig
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Also by Brian Haig
The President's Assassin
Lateness can be a virtue or a sin.
Arrive late to a party, for instance, and that's fashionable. Arrive late for your own funeral and people envy your good fortune. But come late to a possible murder investigation and you have a career problem.
But nearly every problem has a solution, and I turned to the attractive lady in the brown and tan suit who was standing beside me and asked, "Come here often?"
"Hey, that's very funny." She was not laughing, or even smiling.
"It's my best line."
"You'd be surprised how often it works."
"You're right," she observed. "I'd be surprised." She placed a hand over her mouth and laughed quietly, or maybe yawned.
I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. "Sean Drummond," then added less truthfully, "Special Agent Drummond. FBI."
"Bian Tran." She ignored my hand, and was trying to ignore me.
"I like your outfit."
"I'm busy. Can't you make yourself busy?"
We were off on the wrong foot already. In all fairness, sharing a small space with a lovely lady and a fresh corpse does push charm and wit to a higher level. I directed a finger at the body on the bed. "It's interesting, don't you think?"
"I might choose a different adjective."
"Then let's see if we can agree on nouns—was it suicide or murder?"
Her eyes had been on the corpse since I entered the room, and for the first time she turned and examined me. "What do you think?"
"It sure looks like suicide."
"Sure does. But was it made to look that way by him . . . or somebody else?"
Funny. I thought that's what I had asked her.
I turned and again eyed the corpse. Unfortunately, a tall, plump forensic examiner was hunched over the body, mining for evidence, and all I could see was the victim's head and two medium-size feet; the territory between was largely obscured.
But here was what I could observe: The victim was male, latefiftyish, neither ugly nor attractive, tall nor short, skinny nor fat, and so forth. An everyday Joe. A man with bland features and a gray brush cut, physically ordinary and entirely unmemorable.
It occurred to me that if you walked past him on the street or sat beside him on the subway, you would look right past or perhaps through him.
And there, I thought, was one putative motive for going either postal or suicidal—fatal anonymity. "How long have you been here?" I asked Ms. Tran.
"Thirty minutes, more or less." She was jotting notes in a small notebook. She shifted her shoulder and—accidentally, I'm sure— blocked my view of her notebook. She asked, "What about you?"
"Just arrived. How about a little help getting oriented?" What I failed to mention was why I was here in the first place, which had something to do with the victim's phone being tapped by people from the FBI, who were working with people from the CIA, who had overheard a phone call from a distressed lady to the local cops, reporting a corpse.
The victim was what is termed in the intelligence business a target of interest; was being the operative tense. Now he was an object of mystery, and in every mystery there are five basic questions. Who died was obvious, as was where, leaving the three questions I was sent here to figure out—when, how, and with any luck, why.
Nobody informed me why and in this business, don't ask. If you need to know, they'll tell you. Irritating, certainly, but there are valid and important reasons for this rule. The fate of our nation might depend on it, so you have to swallow your curiosity, avoid speculation, and get on with it.
Anyway, suspicion of espionage—that was my guess. I mean, the FBI and CIA don't even like or trust each other. They are the Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, except in cases of espionage, when the crap lands on both their doorsteps. Then you have two prima donnas sharing the same small stage, and we all know what that gets you.
Also worth noting, with the country at war—in Afghanistan and Iraq—espionage had become a more noteworthy matter than during the cold war, where spies mostly just gave up other spies, like homicidal incest. By all the spook thrillers and Hollywood flicks you'd think that was what the whole cold war thing was about. In truth, it was little more than the waterboys at a pro football game snapping towels at each other's butts. Entertaining, for sure: Ultimately, however, the successes were never as great, and the failures never as dire, as they sounded. The more serious stuff would be handled by the millions of armed troops glaring across the inter-German border; the genuinely serious issues by a pair of gentlemen with briefcases who could turn out everybody's lights.
Post-9/11, however, was a new world. Times change—espionage today meant falling towers, crushed nations, and soldiers' lives.
About that latter point, you can bet my interest was more than passing.
Which brings us to me—a newly promoted Army lieutenant colonel by rank, attorney by trade, Judge Advocate General Corps by branch, temporarily assigned to the CIA, though neither Ms. Tran nor the local cops were supposed to know any of that. The CIA is really into disguises, covers, and concealment. Inside the United States, usually this means we're impersonating other federal agencies, and you have to get your act straight. CIA people tend to be intelligent, clever, snide, and arrogant, and you have to suppress that. Feds tend to be intense Goody Two-shoes, wholesome, nosy, pushy, and obnoxious, so I was good to go on three out of five. I think it's fairly obvious which three.
Anyway, Ms. Tran had returned to ignoring me, so I asked her, "Are you going to help me out or not?"
"Why should I?"
"I'll make it worth your while."
"Will you? How?"
I smiled. "Afterward, you can take me to lunch, dinner, Bermuda, whatever."
She replied, without visible enthusiasm, "Let me think about it." Apparently she became distracted by something on the other side of the room, and she wandered away.
I should also mention that, at the moment, I was assigned to a small and fairly unique cell inside the CIA titled the Office of Special Projects, or OSP. About the only thing special about this cell that I can see is it gets the stuff nobody else wants—this job, for instance. In my view, it should be called the Office Where All the Bad Shit Gets Dumped, but the spooks are really into smoke and mirrors, so nothing is what it seems, which is how they like it.
Anyway, this office works directly for the Director of Central Intelligence, which has advantages, because we don't have a lot of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and a big disadvantage, since there's nobody else to pin the screwups on, so it's a bit of a high-wire act.
Also, there are large and significant cultural differences between the clandestine service and the Army, and I was experiencing a few adjustment difficulties. I've been warned, in fact, that if I remove my shoe and speak into the heel again, I can look forward to a long overseas trip someplace that really sucks. These people need to lighten up.
Nor is it unusual for Army officers to be loaned, or, in military parlance, seconded to other government agencies. The idea, as it was explained to me, is we each bring something different to the table— different specialties, different mind-sets, different wardrobes—and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In an organization, the term for this is synergy, and in an individual it's called multiple personality disorder. I'm not really sure about the difference, but there it is.
But for reasons I have yet to understand, the Agency requested me, and for reasons I fully understood, my former Army boss was happy to shove me out the door, so you might say it seemed to work out for everybody; except perhaps me.
But Phyllis Carney, my boss, likes to say she looks for "misfits, mavericks, and oddballs," for their "willingness to apply unorthodox solutions to ordinary problems." It's an interesting management theory, and I think she's started looking into a new one since my arrival.
Ms. Tran now was poking her head inside the victim's closet. I approached her from behind and asked, "Anything interesting?"
She turned around and faced me. "There are three cops, a forensics expert, and four detectives here. Why me?"
"Update me, and I'll get out of your life."
For the first time she looked interested in what I had to say. "Is this because I'm an attractive woman?"
"Absolutely not." Definitely. I said, "You look smart and you take notes. Like the girl I sat beside in second grade."
"When was that? Last year?" She smiled at her own joke.
Which brings me to the here and now: 10:30 a.m., Monday, October 25, Apartment 1209 in a mammoth complex of rental units, mostly cramped efficiencies and one- and two-bedrooms, on South Glebe Road. There was no sign in front of the building that advertised, "Cribs for Swinging Singles," though I was aware it had that reputation.
The apartment was small, essentially one bedroom, an efficiency-style kitchen, closet-size living room, and an adjoining dining room. A Realtor's brochure would characterize it as cozy and intimate, which is code for cramped and uninhabitable. The furniture was sparse and looked new, and also cheap, the sort of crap you rent by the month or pick up at a discount furniture warehouse. I observed few personal, and no permanent touches; no books, no artwork, few of the usual trinkets or junk people sprinkle around to individualize their living environment.
You can usually tell a lot about a person from their home. Especially women who tend to think that how they dress, and how they decorate, are reflections of their inner selves. More often it reveals who they'd like to be, though that contrast can also be telling. Men aren't that complicated or interesting—they're usually anal or pigs; usually shallow pigs. Anyway, I judged the inhabitant here to be fairly neat, not showy, highly organized, and thrifty. Or, alternatively, broke, with the personality and interior complexity of an empty milk carton.
I knew the victim's name was Clifford Daniels, a career civil servant, and I knew that he was assigned to the Pentagon's Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, or USDP, part of the Secretary of Defense's civilian staff.
I also knew this to be a singularly important office in the vast labyrinth of the Pentagon, the equivalent of the military's own State Department, where strategies for world domination are hatched and war plans are submitted for civilian approval, among other dark and nefarious activities.
Also I knew Clifford was a GS-12, a civilian rank roughly equivalent to an Army colonel, and that he had a Top Secret security clearance. Regarding those facts, I considered it noteworthy that a late-middleaged man in a serious profession such as he, working in a sensitive and prestigious office such as his, would choose to live in a complex nicknamed the "Fuck Palace."
I should mention one interesting personal touch I observed as I passed through his living room: a silver frame inside which was a studio-posed photograph of a mildly attractive, middle-aged lady, a smiling young boy, and a frowning teenage girl.
This seemed incongruous with Clifford's living arrangements, and could suggest that we had just stumbled into his secret nooky nest, or he was divorced, or something in between.
Finally, we were just inside the border of the county of Arlington, which explained all the Arlington cops, homicide dicks, and forensics people trying to get a fix on this thing.
Were this suicide, they were wrapping up and about to knock off for an early lunch. If murder, on the other hand, their day was just starting.
As I mentioned, the smell was really rank, and I was the only one without a patch of white neutralizing disinfectant under my nose—or the only one still breathing.
At least I looked manly and cool while everybody else looked like character actors in a stunningly pathetic milk commercial. But in my short time with the Agency, I had learned that image is all-important: The image creates the illusion, and the illusion creates the reality. Or maybe it was the other way around. The Agency has a school for this stuff, but I was working on the fly.
Anyway, Bian Tran was staring at her watch, and she sort of sighed and said, "Okay, let's get through this. Quickly." She looked at me and continued, "I spoke with the lead detective when I arrived. It happened last night. Around midnight." She said, "I think your nose is already telling you that. Am I right?"
After five or six hours at room temperature, a body begins purging gases, and in a small and enclosed space such as this, the effect was worse than the men's room in a Mexican restaurant. Whatever Cliff had for dinner the night before was revolting.
She noted, "Statistically, that's the witching hour for suicides. Not the exact hour, per se. Just late at night."
"I had no idea."
"About 70 percent of the time."
"Okay." I was looking at the window. Unfortunately, we were on the twelfth floor of a modern high-rise and the windows were permasealed. I would either have to breathe slower or get her to talk faster.
She said, "Think about it. Exhaustion, mental defenses are worn down, darkness means gloominess, and if the victim lives alone, a mood of depression and isolation sets in." I must have looked interested in this tutorial because she continued, "Spring. That's the usual season. Holidays, though, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's are also fatally popular."
"Isn't it? When normal people's moods go on the upswing, theirs sink into the danger zone."
"Sounds like you know this stuff."
"I'm certainly no expert. I've helped investigate seven or eight suicides. How about you?"
"Strictly homicides. A little mob stuff, a few fatal kidnappings, that kind of thing." I asked her, "Did you ever investigate a suicide that looked like this?"
"I've never even heard of one like this."
"Was there a note?"
She shook her head. "But that's not conclusive. I've heard of cases where the note was left at the office, or even mailed."
She walked over to the dresser and began a visual inspection of the items on top: a comb and brush, small wooden jewelry box, small mirror, a few male trinkets. I followed her and asked, "How was the body discovered?"
"The victim uses . . . used a maid service. The maid had a key, at nine she let herself in and walked into this mess."
"Implying the apartment door was locked when she arrived. Right?"
"It has a self-locking mechanism." She added, "And no . . . there are no signs of burglary or break-in."
"The cops already checked for that?" I knew the same question would later be asked of me, so I asked.
"They did. The front door and a glass slider to the outdoor porch are the only entrances. The slider door was also locked, if you're interested. Anyway, we're on the twelfth floor."
"Who called the police?"
"The maid. She dialed 911, and they switched her to the police department."
I already knew that, but when you fail to raise the predictable questions, people get suspicious and start asking you questions. My FBI creds looked genuine enough to get me past the crime recorder at the door; now all I had to do was avoid any serious discussions that would expose what an utter phony I was. I'm good at that.
Checking the next box, I asked, "Where's the maid?"
"In the kitchen. Name's Juanita Perez. Young, about twenty. Hispanic, and very Catholic, probably illegal, and at the moment, extremely distraught."
"I'll bet." I mean, I arrived at this apartment anticipating a corpse, and yet, between the malignant stench and the sight, I was still appalled. Juanita expected perhaps a messy apartment, but not a dead client, definitely not one in his vulgar condition, and for sure not a green card inspection.
I tried to imagine the moment she entered the bedroom, lured, perhaps, by the odor, lugging her cleaning bucket and possibly a duster or some other tool of her trade. She opened the bedroom door, stepped inside, and bingo—a man, totally naked, lying on his back, utterly exposed with the sheets rumpled around his feet. On the bedside table was a full glass of water, and discarded on the floor by the bed was a pile of unfolded garments: black socks, white boxers, dog-eared brown oxfords, a cheap gray two-piece business suit, white polyester shirt, and a really ugly necktie—it had little birds flying on green and brown stripes. His sartorial tastes aside, it looked like the same outfit Cliff wore to the office the day before. For the watchful observer this is a clue of sorts.
Also, nearly beneath the bed with only a corner sticking out, was a worn and scuffed tan leather valise, which for reasons I'll explain later, you can bet I kept a close eye on.
In fact, I edged my way over, gingerly placed a foot on that valise, and pressed down. The contents felt hard and flat—a thick notebook, or maybe a laptop computer. I then nudged the valise farther under the bed and, to distract Ms. Tran, pointed at the pile of clothes and observed, "He undressed in a hurry."
"Well . . . I'll bet messing up his clothes was the least of his worries."
I nodded. Behaviorally, I knew this to be partially consistent with suicide, and partially not. Those about to launch themselves off the cliff of oblivion focus on the here and now, with perhaps a thought to eternity, totally indifferent about tomorrow, because there is no tomorrow.
But neither are suicidal people usually in a careless rush. They are, for once, masters of their own destiny, their own fate. Some wrestle with temptation, others indulge the moment. Whatever stew of miseries brought them to this point is about to be erased, banished— forever. A calm sets in, a moment of contemplation, perhaps. Some compose an informative or angry or apologetic note; many become surprisingly detached, methodical, ritualistic.
A psychiatrist friend once explained all this to me, further mentioning that the precise method of suicide often exposes a great deal about the victim's mood and mind-state.
Dead men tell no tales, as our pirate friends liked to say. But they often do leave road maps.
A common and I suppose reasonable impulse is to arrange a painless ending, or at least a swift one. But how they do it, that's what matters.
Scarring, scalding, or defacing their own bodies is often verboten; thus the popularity of overdosing, poisoning, carbon monoxide, or a plastic bag over the head—methods that leave the departed vessel intact, which matters for some reason. Some turn their final act into a public spectacle, flinging themselves off high buildings into busy thoroughfares, or rounding up an audience by calling the cops. Others take the opposite approach, finding an isolated spot to erase all evidence of their existence, anonymously leaping off tall bridges into deep waters, or presetting a fire to incinerate their corpse.
Unfortunately, we were in a bar, the shrink was a she, I was three sheets to the wind, and I was more interested in her 38D than her PhD. I am often ashamed by own pigginess, but anyway, I understood this: Suicide is like performance art. For the investigator, if you know how to read the signs, it's like a message from the dead. The victim is communicating something.
Again, I tried peeking around the hefty forensic examiner's shoulder and asked myself, what message was this guy sending, deliberately or otherwise?
His head rested on a pillow that was soaked with dried blood and brain matter, and about two inches from his left ear rested his left hand, in which a Glock 9mm pistol was gripped. His forefinger was still inside the trigger guard, and a silencer was screwed to the end of the barrel, which was interesting. There were no obvious signs of a scuffle or struggle, further presumptive evidence that this was a solo act.
Of course, you need to be careful about hasty conclusions when homicide is a possibility. There's what you see, there's what the killer wants you to see, and there's what you should see.
Tran asked, "Do you have a clear view?"
"I . . . Am I missing something?"
This question for some reason elicited a smirk. "Yes, I think you probably are."
I took this as a suggestion and walked across the room to a position on the far side of the body where the forensics dick no longer obscured my view. I began at mid-body and worked up, then back down.
The first thing I noted was a purpling around his butt and upper arms, as you would expect a few hours after his heart went out of business and gravity cornered the market on blood flow. His stomach had already bloated with gas, and I saw no bruising or abrasions on the corpse. His eyes were frozen open, and his facial expression indicated surprise, or shock, or both. I spent a moment thinking about that.
About two inches above his left ear was a small dark hole, roughly the size of a 9mm bullet, which was indicative that the Glock in his left hand was the weapon that did the dirty deed. I took a moment and examined the pistol more closely. As I said, a silencer was screwed to the barrel, and as I also said, it was a Glock, but a specialty model known as the Glock 17 Pro, which I knew to be expensive and usually imported.
The bullet had been fired straight and level, and part of his right ear, half his brain, and chunks of his skull had produced a sort of Jackson Pollock splatter arrangement on the far, formerly white wall.
No wedding ring—thus Cliff Daniels either was not married or, based on the photographic evidence in his living room, was keeping it a secret.
More interesting, for a man who in so many ways seemed so inconspicuous, in one very notable way Clifford Daniels, at least in his present state, was anything but—I mean, I'm fairly comfortable about my own manhood, but I wouldn't want to have a locker beside Cliff's.
And most interesting of all, his right hand was gripped around his other gun, and at the moment of passing he appeared to have been in a state of sexual arousal. Goodness.
I walked back over to Ms. Tran. She looked at me and asked, "You saw it?"
Somebody had to say something, and eventually she defined It. "He's so . . . large."
"Oh . . . that? I don't call that big."
"Of course, it's not about the size," I told her.
We suddenly found ourselves on thin ice. I mean, here we were, a man and a woman, barely acquainted professionals, sharing a small room with a monster Mr. Johnson flying at full mast.
She suggested, "I suppose we have to address his, well . . . his state of . . ."
"You know . . . his . . ."
"Spell it out."
She said, sounding annoyed, "That's enough, Drummond. We're both adults."
"Really? You should ask my boss about that."
"Look . . . the corpse has . . . had an erection—okay? Let's just keep it clinical. Act like professionals. We can deal with this."
"Good idea. After all, you can't ignore the elephant in the room."
She put a hand over her mouth and smiled, or maybe frowned. Then she mustered a stern look and said, "I hope that's out of your system."
"Not a chance."
"Well . . . now, here's the good news. I think we can rule out erectile dysfunction or penile insecurities as motives for suicide."
I mean, we both were affected by this man's death, sympathetic about the miseries that led to such a tragic act, and professionally dedicated to getting to the bottom of this.
Eros and Thanatos—sex and death. When the ancient Greeks wrote about sex, it was comedy, and of death, tragedy. So the scene before us was a combination of sad, nauseating, and ridiculous. As every cop knows, satire is a coping mechanism, a path to detachment, without which you haven't a prayer of catching the bad guys.
Anyway, that was her excuse. My dog ate mine.
I cleared my throat, and tried to clear my mind, and asked, "So, was it murder or was it suicide?"
"Well . . . the lead detective mentioned a few other things you should be aware of."
"When the maid entered the bedroom, the TV was on . . . as was the DVD player, albeit in passive mode."
"So he watched a little tube before he pulled the plug. Maybe he didn't like the show. Rather than get up and turn the channel, maybe he pushed his own stop button." I recalled a lady friend who once made me watch a full episode of General Hospital; I thought seriously about killing myself.
She said, "A porn video was in the DVD player."
We exchanged eye contact.
She added, "I've never seen or heard of this with a suicide. Have you?"
"I've read of cases where certain sexual fetishes resulted in death. For example, asphyxiation, or near asphyxiation, apparently heightens the sexual sensation."
"I've heard of it. In those cases, though, death is accidental, an unwanted by-product. That doesn't apply here."
"Maybe he was holding his breath when he blew out his brains."
I thought she was going to make me stand in the corner. She said, "Sexual asphyxia . . . that's the clinical expression for the fetish you've raised. It involves strangulation, a sudden disruption of blood, and therefore of oxygen, to the brain. But that's not what happened here, was it? He watched a dirty movie, he put a pistol to his head, and he blew out his brain."
I had a really funny response to that, having to do with the possibility that he accidentally blew out the wrong brain. But I sometimes obey my better angels, and instead I suggested, "You could theorize that he used the tape as a distraction from a task that was surely unpleasant. A mental diversion . . . a form of mental anesthesia." Recalling the conversation with my lady shrink friend, I informed her, "Here's another thing to consider. With suicide victims, the manner of their death often expresses what they were thinking, their final thoughts."
"All right . . . I can see where that makes sense." She gazed thoughtfully at Clifford Daniels's body and asked, "What do you think was the last thing that passed through his mind?"
"A 9mm bullet."
I think I had worn out her stamina for my bad jokes. In fact she said, "Try again."
"Well, it's not necessarily a conscious or even deliberate arrangement on the victim's part. Maybe he was experiencing a final narcissistic impulse. You know, like subliminal exhibitionism run amok."
"I think it's fair to say that Clifford had one exemplary feature. Wouldn't you agree? Maybe he wanted to be remembered for that."
I couldn't tell what she was thinking about this, but she remarked, "Men are really strange."
"Check the nearest magazine rack. Males have no monopoly on sexual exhibitionism . . . or oversize organs, or weirdness."
"And you consider who buys those magazines, and why." She then concluded, "You raise an intriguing point, though. I'll be sure to consult with a psychiatrist about this."
Which offered the opening I'd been waiting for. "Why are you here? Have you got a piece of this case?"
"Why are you here?"
"Ladies before gentlemen."
"Oh . . . now you're a gentleman?" It wasn't that funny, but she laughed.
I should mention why I asked. Bian Tran's tan- and loam-colored outfit was not your ordinary feminine attire, but a desert-style camouflage battle dress uniform with Uncle Sam's Army embroidered above her right breast.
- On Sale
- Jan 6, 2007
- Page Count
- 462 pages
- Grand Central Publishing